"Will, for Godís sake!" Bran hoped he was staying in the same spot. Ryoís sword he held up, on guard, but damned if Will couldnít wander right into the battlefield, with Bran none the wiser.
He could not properly see what the ronin were fighting, and he was glad of it. The sand was growing dark and wet under the invisible onslaught, like pools of new blood. Worse yet, it was all going on in utter silence. Not even the mystical weapons were making contact with anything solid.
"Iím here," Willís voice said.
"Get yourself together!"
"I know, Iím sorry." Willís voice was crumpling with frustration. "The river is rising. I see it now. Thereís... Bran, itís an army of spirits." He paused. "The fogís gone, but thereís mist."
"Ddiawl, there is no mist!"
"I was wrong about the poem," said Will unhappily. "The fate of Cafall. The ill wind of the Grey King. His were the eyes that could see the wind. And through that gift he was deceived, though he was doing the right thing."
Branís grip on the sword slipped. "Stop talking like that! You will not die."
"Bran!" His voice rose so high with horror that Bran turned from the fray, and saw only the mirage-like wavering where Will had been standing. "Bran, which one of those are you?"
He gaped, then shook his head. Taking a chance, he lowered the sword. "How many, Will? My sword is down."
"Dozens!" Will was backing up. "They all lowered their swords."
Standing perfectly still, Bran tried to mentally call one of the ronin. They were too busy holding the line, though. Even Nasuti was too far away to help, standing with Ryo. "Do you have the stone?"
"Itís glowing. Its forging is soon..." Inside his cage of mist, Will hissed as the stone flared with a cold fire, burning off the layers of cloth as though they were dry paper. He caught it gingerly, a blue-green insect in his hand.
He had to open his palms to see that it was there. A chill had crept over him without his noticing, and he was too numb to feel its smooth shape.
At first he took it for an echo. Only at first. Will swallowed. "Oh no. Bran, theyíre speaking with your voice."
Bran raised the sword, on guard in the Western style. The ronin were continuously aware of their two charges behind their line. They would not let an enemy through. This had to be an illusion put upon Will.
He then remembered the tengu, and that Will had said heíd spoken Welsh in the banishing of it. Perhaps Japanese ghosts did not know Welsh.
Bran cleared his throat, and began to sing.
Tíwyned yr haul ar
Aneddle fy mebyd,
Llawon a disglair fo
Bwthyn Llwyn Onn
Will drew breath. The Ash Grove. He could still hear his brother Paulís flute picking out that old melody. Bran was singing in a halting adagio. Though he competed in the bard contests all the time, he was shy of his voice.
The ghost-Brans pointed their swords at him, and held them Japanese style, as a samurai might. "We are here for you, Seeker. You cannot destroy us but for the stone."
Will carefully opened his palm. Go away. He thought. Go away.
A beam of light shot from his open hands, like a sunbeam from a crystal.
"Sensei!" came Kujuurouís cry.
Bran shielded his eyes against the clash of light on light. Nasuti had turned just in time, the shakujo blazing against the cruel lightning arcing toward her and Ryo. Shuu let out a yell, raising his staff.
"Shuu, yamero!" Seiji turned the blade of his sword. "Itís Will-san!"
Shuu relented, but looked straight at Bran, who needed no telepathy to pick the thought from his mind. He was standing too close to Will, blocking a clear shot.
Bran kept his sword up, and continued to sing.
Anwyl i nghalon
Yw ty fy rhieni,
A haulwen fy mron
As he sang those notes of sad longing, Bran began to realize that there were other voices humming with him.
They were very high. Very young. And all of them were crying.
Inside Willís cage, the mist was thickening. With it came the wind. Will shivered, weakened, trying to keep his chilled fingers closed over the stone. Like all things from the Lost Land, it carried the power of Making and Unmaking; he could not let it loose again.
Even then he Knew to his core that the advancing spectres were not illusions. Very like Bran they were, except for the lack of light in their tawny, narrowed eyes. They did not have to be seen by the others. They were only here for him.
"The armors we cannot take. But we can take you, Deathless, Powerful One."
Will strained to hear Bran. His friend had to be keeping them at bay, somehow, between his sword and his song. Maddeningly he knew Bran was close, but could not pinpoint a direction. "Why?" he said, half to himself.
Out of the mist came the terrifying answer. "The far shore will not take us. One night out of the year we may visit the nearer shore. As it is in your land. But with your powers, all nights shall be One Night! As it was in the time before time..."
"Never! That is against the High Law! And all of Wild Magic and Old Magic belong to mankind."
"This land was ours first, Deathless. Ours. Ours! Come with us... You will not need your body when you dwell in our new realm."
Will fought to stay awake against the terrible cold that was Deathís chill. He focused on Branís lilting Welsh instead.
Far, far away I have
Sailed over the ocean
He had to stop them somehow. The power of the stone would do it. But he had to focus it in the right direction, or risk annihilating all the rest.
And he had to be conscious to do it. He could barely feel his fingers, his face, from the tip of his nose to his trembling limbs. One sensation came through clearly: the Sign was burning. Gripping the stone in his right hand, he held it before his eyes...
Still guided by fate
On the wings of unrest
...and it was then that Will realized the true magnitude of his mistake.
For the Sign of Iron, burnt into his skin, healed by the Lady of the Light, was not as it was before. With a sickened lurch Will saw that there was a black feather threaded over the crossed lines. Long ago the image had been one of protection and triumph; and so when heíd raised his arm to shield himself from the tengu, he had thought nothing of the feathers flying through the air.
Enchantment over fire. Enchantment over sword. Enchantment over blood... his own blood. The Sign on his own flesh. There his own defenses had concealed it, as he had always done for all eyes but his own.
"Itís not me they want! Itís the Sign!" But Willís words were snatched up by the wind. The spectres were drawing closer, almost at swordís length. He had to use the stone, somehow.
But how? To send another bolt of light into the void, where it might hit the people he couldnít see. And the person closest to him. Where are you, Bran? thought Will wildly. A wrong choice would be the death of him. This fate rang terrible and false for one who had come all this way for his friend.
An Old One in full might would not quail from such a decision. But how could he do that to Bran, still bravely, guilelessly singing? I canít do this! I was meant to be by your side, always.
Oh! that I had the swift
Wings of the swallow,
To fly to my home,
To return to my nest.
And it came to him, as clearly as the memory of two stone dragons on the temple steps.
Will pressed the stone between his palms, then spread his arms wide, reaching east and west. The stone fell straight down to the ground. The spectres fell away from his mind. On the battlefield, the attackers disintegrated into fine grey ash.
Once more Will could see the flood of spirits bearing down on him, seconds from crushing his body to dust. He scrabbled and stretched his numbed fingers as far as he could... and in the next moment his left arm was caught by a strong hand. He was pulled from his cage of mist. Will did not have to turn his head to know that it was Bran, and that he was safe.
At their feet the stone now lay on one of the many rock piles. The ground rippled out from it, groaning as the small pile rose up, wobbling like a child beginning to walk. The rocks and pebbles seemed fastened tight; not one tumbled off as it grew. Bran backed them away. Above was the ghostly storm approaching, and towards it the mound of rocks clambered skyward.
There came a great yell from all sides of the caldera. The ronin raised their weapons, their power bursting out in heat waves. Bran gasped aloud as the five streams raced to the center, where Ryo and Nasuti stood together on the old red bridge. Strangely Ryo had two swords again, though the one Bran had dropped was lying in the sand beside them. Will, both hands grasping tight now, could only shake his head as the five streams converged. And ignited.
Ryo touched the tips of his molten-hot swords to the staff, and the sky lit to blinding brightness. Every soul seemed illuminated by it, as lightning might outline a cloud. It was a brief nightmare vision of a clamoring madness which was eerily silent.
Nasuti was not afraid. She flung the staff toward the coming host. Dazzling streamers arced and leaped in its wake. The mass parted, afraid to touch it, and it burned its way higher and higher. The stones, now a small mountain, rose in the staffís direction.
"Look!" Will whispered. Scarves and hats fell in heaps as the solid stone Jizo shed the muffling layers. Each smooth head stooped down; each weathered hand, unlocked from its body, plucked a pinwheel from the ground. Straightening, they held the toys before their lips. From lifeless stone came breath. The pinwheels whistled unnaturally loud, like a gale through thick branches. Bran held Will tighter.
The sound was answered by the laughter of a thousand little voices. Past their legs came the stamp of sandals and slippers, playground shrieks and joyful hoots with no mouths to voice them. They heard rather than saw the children race up the stone mountain, not one stumbling, not one left behind.
"Mother Mary preserve us," breathed Bran, as the ghost-children ran past. He looked down once as though seeing someone, but Will saw nothing. Will could barely hear them. His ear was filled with Branís heartbeat, his arms aching from the effort of clinging to him.
The mountain of pebbles grew right into the spirit cloud, where the light of the staff shined brightest. Up and up it gracefully grew, the colors of a thousand kimono seeming to reflect from countless polished stones, this bridge over a raging river. Up through the clouds, into the dying light...
"Itís a rainbow," Bran said, his voice hushed.
Will turned his head and squinted up. Everything was still. "It is," he said, and fell upon Branís shoulder, completely spent.
With that, the last of the twilight died. The sky turned from sickly yellow to dark blue to velvet cloudless black, with a million stars benevolently shining down.
MIDI file of The Ash Grove made by Barry Taylor.
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